Many Russians already fed up with corruption saw a newly released investigative video as the last straw, and anger is also boiling over after months of hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
(CN) — Perhaps, the $850 toilet brush will be the downfall of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the space of a week, Russia has been plunged into a political storm that saw roughly 100,000 Russians across the nation take to the streets over the weekend in the biggest protests in years.
By Monday, more than 3,700 arrests had been made and a perfect storm may be gathering on the presidency of Vladimir Putin who is at risk of seeing his luster get blown away after two decades in power.
The storm was set off a week ago when Alexei Navalny, the 44-year-old opposition figure allegedly poisoned by Russian intelligence services last year, returned to Moscow after receiving treatment in Germany. His daring return set in motion events that pose a major challenge to Putin.
When Navalny’s airplane – packed with journalists – landed at a Moscow airport on Jan. 17, he was greeted by Russian police at the passport checkpoint. Next, with cameras rolling, the world watched Navalny say goodbye to his wife and be led away by police. He was arrested on dubious charges of missing parole hearings related to a suspended sentence for an embezzlement conviction deemed bogus by many.
What came next, though, truly got the storm started: Two days after he was jailed, Navalny and his team of supporters released a damning two-hour video accusing Putin of becoming “the world’s richest man” through three decades of corruption that began with his service as a KGB agent in Dresden shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Within days, the video on YouTube – accompanied by English subtitles – had been viewed about 20 million times. By Monday, it had been clicked on more than 87 million times.
Navalny rose to fame as Putin’s fiercest critic after years of exposing corruption inside the highest levels of Russian government and business circles. But this new expose is his most explosive yet: In it, he attacks Putin with ferocity.
Most damaging are extraordinary details Navalny and his team have dug up about a $1.35 billion palace and estate Putin is allegedly building for himself on the Black Sea. One of those details is an accusation that Putin’s “new Versailles” comes with a luxury $850 Italian-made toilet brush. During protests on Saturday, demonstrators holding aloft toilet brushes became a powerful symbol.
“I really want to understand how an ordinary Soviet officer turned into a madman who is obsessed with money and luxury and literally ready to destroy the country and kill for the sake of his chests of gold,” Navalny says in the video, which was shot in part when the opposition leader was in Germany getting treatment for his poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent.
The video shows Navalny sitting outside a building where a young Putin resided during his time in Dresden. The expose then chronicles how various friends and associates Putin met along his road from KGB agent in Dresden to corrupt middleman in the office of the St. Petersburg’s mayor to Russian president are now among the richest people in Russia and commanding many of its largest enterprises – oil and gas companies, banks and construction empires.
“A gang of bribe takers and crooks from the St. Petersburg mayor’s office seized all key posts and declared themselves brilliant managers and saviors of Russia,” Navalny says.
After tracing Putin’s pathways through government and corruption, Navalny introduces what he sees as Putin’s crowning achievement: The $1.35 billion palace allegedly built with public money and bribes.
Navalny likens Putin to Louis XIV, France’s “Sun King” who resided in opulence and decadence in the Versailles palace and whose extravagance brought France to its knees in the 18th century.
“This is not a country house, not a dacha, not a residence. This is a whole city, or rather a kingdom,” Navalny says.
Using a drone, Navalny’s team flew over the secret estate and filmed what is allegedly going on there: Construction on a 190,400-square-foot Versailles-like palace; work on an underground hockey rink and helipads; a massive greenhouse; vineyards and wineries; a power station and servants’ buildings; a massive amphitheater; secret tunnels that reach down to a beach; border checkpoints; oyster farms.
Navalny said the palace lies within a much larger estate that ranges over 7,000 hectares, which are sealed off by walls and checkpoints.
“It is an actual separate state within Russia. And in this state, there is a single and irreplaceable king: Putin,” Navalny says.
“This is the new Versailles, or the new Winter Palace. A truly royal palace,” he added. The Winter Palace was an opulent residence for Russia’s tsar.
Using records Navalny said were obtained from construction workers, his team also pieced together a jaw-dropping picture of the luxury found inside the palace.
“Finally, looking inside, you will understand that the president of Russia is mentally ill,” Navalny says. “Obsessed with wealth and money.”
Through the use of digital graphic artists, Navalny’s team takes viewers into a virtual tour of what they believe lies inside the palace. There are grand halls, a strip club, a casino, luxury bathrooms and bedrooms.
The release of the video was timed to be aired after his return to Russia. In the video, Navalny said he didn’t want to be accused of taking a shot at Putin while he was outside Russia. Instead, Navalny has gone on the offensive: He returned to Russia with the intention of seeking to start an insurrection. He asked Russians to take to the streets on Saturday – and they did by the tens of thousands.
In freezing temperatures, massive crowds gathered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Demonstrators shouted: “Putin is a thief! Free Navalny!” An estimated 40,000 people protested in Moscow.
Calling the gatherings unauthorized and a violation of restrictions to stem the coronavirus pandemic, phalanxes of riot police were seen locking arms and barging into protesters. Clashes broke out and demonstrators pelted riot police with snowballs. Women were seen speaking angrily into the faces of police lined up against protesters. People were grabbed and hauled off to police vans. Women screamed and resisted arrest. People shouted: “Freedom,” “Shame on you,” “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive,” “Freedom to political prisoners,” and “Russia without Putin.”
Perhaps more significant, the demonstrations were not limited to Russia’s two major cities. Demonstrations broke out in more than 120 cities across Russia’s regions in places that have not seen protests in years. The protests also included many people who appeared to not only be Navalny supporters but more generally angry over years of corruption.
Likely, many people already fed up with corruption saw Navalny’s video as the last straw. Also, anger is boiling over after months of hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Putin’s poor handling of the crisis. Russia has reported about 70,000 deaths and 3.7 million confirmed cases, though it recently acknowledged three times as many people have died from the virus.
Russia’s coronavirus aid also has left out large swaths of the population, especially those in the middle class who are self-employed. In addition, many Russians are angry over constitutional changes that could allow Putin to extend his grip on the presidency for years to come. The eruption of protests in regional cities indicates that anger is growing in parts of Russia hit the hardest by the slowing economy.
These are the biggest protests since 2012 when Russians held massive rallies against the reelection of Putin. On social media, many Russians said they joined protests for the first time and were ready to continue marching against the government. More demonstrations are planned for next weekend.
The protests breaking out in Russia may become an extension of demonstrations that have been going on for more than five months in neighboring Belarus, where people are demanding an end to the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, another strongman and holdover from the Soviet past. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
The protests in Russia likely would have been even larger had Putin’s government not passed recent laws designed to stamp out manifestations. These laws allow authorities to slap protesters with tougher fines and longer jail terms. They also make it riskier for people to carry signs and protest symbols, which helps explain an absence of signs and other symbols in Saturday’s demonstrations.
OVD Info, a human rights group monitoring the protests, reported on Monday that 3,770 people had been arrested Saturday, making it the largest number of people detained in a single day in Russia.
Many people in Navalny’s circle – including his wife Yuliya Navalnaya, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and Georgy Alburov, an employee of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation – were arrested on Saturday or in the days leading up to the nationwide protests. The Russian Interior Ministry said it was investigating Navalny’s team for “organizing provocations and violent actions.”
Reports of violence by police poured in from across Russia, according to Human Rights Watch. It said it had viewed video footage showing police beating people with batons, pushing people to the ground and kicking them. One journalist reported seeing police drag a woman by her hair.
Across Russia, criminal cases were launched against people authorities are accusing of calling for mass riots and violence against police, Human Rights Watch said.
“The unprecedented detentions and extreme police brutality across Russia are evidence of how low human rights standards have plummeted in the country,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina with Human Rights Watch. “Ultimately this repression of basic human rights only galvanizes people and deepens their grievances.”
Human Rights Watch said there were also reports of protesters clashing with police, though it described most of the demonstrations as peaceful. It said there were reports of protesters kicking and punching police and one person throwing George Orwell’s dystopian novel about totalitarianism “1984” at police. The group said it received reports of a flare, powder, firecrackers, traffic cones and an empty glass also being thrown at police.
The anger breaking out in Russia poses many dangers for Putin, whose aura appears to be losing its luster for many Russians who may be inclined to see him in an unfavorable light after he spent months largely out of public sight during the pandemic, cloistered in the Kremlin. He is even ridiculed, one Russian analyst said.
“Once a politician is laughed at in Russia, rather than feared, he has lost it. There is no respect, no fear,” the analyst, who wished to remain off the record, told Courthouse News. “They should have kept Navalny in exile – and there really is no other politician in Russia at the moment to lead the opposition – and things would have carried on as they were.”
He added, “Now they have to do something. Jail him? Exile him? An accidental death in prison – that won’t go down well. The genie is out of the bottle. Once the crowd gets a taste for Belarus-style protests.”
On Monday, Putin denied the allegations made in Navalny’s video and said he does not own the seaside palace.
“I didn’t watch this movie simply because I don’t have enough free time […] but I flipped through the video collections that my assistants brought me,” Putin said in televised remarks he made to students. “To answer your question right away: nothing that is listed there as my property does not and never has belonged to me or my close relatives.”
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, earlier called the allegations in Navalny’s video groundless. “They are nonsense, a compilation of fabrications,” he said.
Russia is accusing the United States and the European Union of backing Navalny financially and supporting his cause. Putin has alleged that Navalny is a foreign agent seeking to undermine Russia. On Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Washington of meddling in its affairs and said U.S. social media companies were complicit in helping protesters organize, Interfax reported.
EU leaders, meanwhile, are watching events in Russia with concern and great interest.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the mass arrests “an intolerable affront” and a “slide towards authoritarianism.”
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, demanded the EU ramp up sanctions against Russia over the treatment of Navalny.
“The only way to [avoid conflict] is to force international law to be observed. The only way to do this without rifles, cannons and bombs is via sanctions,” Duda told the Financial Times.
On Monday, EU foreign affairs ministers met in Brussels to discuss imposing new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the arrest of Navalny and the crackdown on protesters. EU leaders have proposed new asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials.
Josep Borrell, the foreign affairs chief for the EU, said he was concerned by the “worrying events” in Russia.
“This wave of detention is something that worries us a lot as well as the detention of Mr. Navalny,” he told reporters before the meeting.
“Those who have been arrested should be released immediately,” said Finland’s foreign affairs minister, Pekka Haavisto.
The U.S. condemned the arrests too. Jake Sullivan, the incoming White House national security adviser, said: “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.